The BRU Roars: Mr. President, Enforce, Restore, Expand Our Civil Rights

Streetsblog estimates 250 people were at the rally at any given point. The BRU put the total number between 350-400 as people came and went from the rally as it went on.

We’re the BRU. This is our fight
Mass transportation is a human right
We want 50 cent fares and $20 passes
‘cause mass transportation belongs to the masses
BRU Chant, heard yesterday.

Hoping to leverage the importance of minority and lower income voters to President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, the Bus Riders Union (BRU) launched “a national campaign calling on President Obama to stand for the civil rights of Black and Latino transit riders in Los Angeles,” in front of City Hall’s west entrance yesterday afternoon.

The BRU’s campaign attracted the support of twenty allied organizations including the East Los Angeles Community Council, Koreatown Immigrants Workers Alliance, and SEIU United Service Workers West; each of whom had representatives sprinkled in the sea of yellow-t-shirt clad supporters wearing their own organizations’ colors.  A full list of supporting organizations is at the end of this story, after the jump.

Disappointed that a  Federal Transit Administration Civil Rights Title VI review didn’t roll back recent service cuts, the campaign is aiming over the FTA’s head. The campaign appeals directly to Obama to, in their words, order the agency to restore one million hours of service. In the wake of a recent announcement that Metro is extending hours on Metro rail and Bus Rapid Transit late into the night, the BRU also wants to know why bus riders aren’t seeing a return of bus service eliminated over the last four years.

Barbara Lott-Holland, co-chair of the BRU said, “This is a major civil rights test case for President Obama. With clear evidence that the nation’s second largest mass transit agency violated federal civil rights law, the case offers President Obama an important opportunity to bring justice to 500,000 Black, Latino, and Asian-Pacific Islander bus riders who have been slammed by service cuts and fare increases.”

Even if the President wanted to over-rule the FTA’s decision on Metro’s service policies, it’s doubtful he has the legal right to do so.  Streetsblog spoke with a legal expert familiar with the FTA’s recent review of Metro’s civil rights policies, who asked not to be identified.  This lawyer said that direct intervention by the President overruling a report by the FTA would create legal problems for the President if Metro opposed his decision.  If Metro accepted the President’s oversight, it would create a “terrible” legal precedent.  After all, would the BRU want Mitt Romney making decisions on what kind of transit service Metro should provide?”

Despite the t-shirts and banners with the president’s picture, the real target of yesterday’s rally could be Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.  Obama chose Villaraigosa to Chair of the Democratic National Convention in September. Attacking Villaraigosa’s progressive bona-fides, especially on his signature issue, could be an attempt to embarrass the mayor into taking a proactive role in restoring the slashed service hours.

“Sadly, Mayor Villaraigosa, as Chair of the L.A. Metro Board, has failed to take a clear stand for civil rights and for the restoration of the deep service cuts that are so devastating for the urban poor,” said Sunyoung Yang, lead organizer with the Bus Riders Union. “Will he allow black and latino communities to be pushed to the brink of economic survival and displaced from their own neighborhoods in order to pursue a transportation agenda that gentrifies the city and fattens the pockets of corporate developers and the construction lobby? Or will the Mayor take a stand for civil rights and for the restoration of one million hours of bus service?”

The mayor’s office declined to comment on the story, but recent comments made in Streetblog’s exclusive interview with Villaraigosa paint a picture of a mayor concerned about the cost and quality of local bus service.  When asked directly about his future plans, Villaraigosa commented, “My goal is to convince the Congress we need to spend more money on operations. That’s going to take more time.”

Whether the BRU can make enough noise to get the President’s attention has yet to be proven.  But regardless of one’s view of the BRU or this campaign, yesterday’s rally marked the first attempt by a group outside of Washington, D.C. to aggresively insert the plight of transit riders into the 2012 presidential debate.  BRU leaders listed allies in other cities: Atlanta, Chicago, New York and others. They’re going to need all the help they can get to be heard through the white noise of a presidential campaign.

Endorsers of the “Mr. President, Enforce, Restore, Expand Our Civil Rights” Campaign to date:

ACUSLA – Association of Communities United of South Los Angeles

CADRE – Community Asset Development Re-Defining Education

CHIRLA – Coalition of Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles

CLEAN Carwash Campaign,

Coalition for Educational Justice

Comité Pro-Democracia de Mexico

Communities for a Better Environment

D.R.E.A.M. Team Los Angeles

Committee of Ex-Bracero Workers

East Los Angeles Community Corporation

Inner City Struggle

Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance

Los Angeles Community Action Network

Restaurant Opportunities Center-Los Angeles

SEIU United Service Workers West

Union de Vecinos

Youth Justice Coalition

 

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Spinning a Civil Rights Complaint

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Late last week, most likely in response to a report by the Bus Riders Union and their community allies, a letter from Metro CEO Art Leahy dismissing the Civil Rights complaints of the BRU appeared on The Source.  The letter basically announced that the Title VI complaints against the agency announced last Spring were dismissed, […]